Let It Bleed

Prosecutors' reluctance to charge murder suspects in S.F. leaves alleged killers on the street, flush with bravado

For alleged criminals, meanwhile, the self-styled progressive utopia serves as a sanctuary of do-overs. "We fancy ourselves as a wonderful, forgiving, caring place," says Delagnes, the police union chief, who testified in hundreds of trials as a narcotics detective. "So juries -- in murders, rapes, assaults, robberies -- they'll say, 'Oh, give him another chance.'" Only twice in the last 40 years has a San Francisco jury recommended a death sentence.

Jurors suspicious of law enforcement and merciful toward the accused pose a barbed dilemma for a district attorney staring at the city's highest murder rate since 1995. While Harris insists that her conviction rate has no influence on whether prosecutors file homicide cases, a high percentage of dismissals or acquittals would spoon-feed campaign chum to prospective political foes.

"If a DA loses five homicides in a row," Delagnes says, "guess what the next candidate for DA will be saying?"

DA Kamala Harris insists her office is "aggressive" in 
homicide cases.
Courtesy of AP Worldwide Photos
DA Kamala Harris insists her office is "aggressive" in filing homicide cases.
Former DA Terence Hallinan's "ultraliberal" reputation 
a hard-line attitude on murders.
Courtesy of AP Worldwide Photos
Former DA Terence Hallinan's "ultraliberal" reputation belied a hard-line attitude on murders.

At the same time, should Harris seek re-election or higher office -- the Los Angeles Timescrowned her "a rising political star" two years ago -- allegations that her office dodged difficult cases while the city bled could inflict deep wounds on her career. If an election were held today, an opponent, fairly or not, could lob this incendiary statistic at her: During Hallinan's eight years on the job, the city averaged 65 murders a year; in Harris' first two years, the rate shot up to 92.

Tom Orloff, Alameda County's district attorney, jokes that he shuns praise when the homicide rate drops "because it will inevitably go up again, and I don't want to take the blame." Last year, his office had charged 58 homicides through mid-December, or 20 more than prosecutors filed in Harris' first two years combined.

Orloff appreciates the delicacy of his counterpart's jury pool quandary, and he describes Harris, who worked in the Alameda DA's Office for eight years, as both tenacious and diligent. Yet he disputes the prevailing rationale that San Francisco juries shrink from convicting accused killers. "Liberals don't like murder, either," he says.

As drug- and gang-related revenge killings ravage the Western Addition and Bayview-Hunters Point, investigators argue that, though an acquittal might boost a suspected killer's cachet on the street, failing to charge him all but assures it. By bringing a case, Inspector Casillas says, "you're saying, 'We're looking at you, man.'"

Speculating whether filing more cases would deter other dope dealers and gangbangers from blowing one another away serves as a grim parlor game among legal observers. Hallinan, for one, believes that even losing a murder trial "lets people in the neighborhood know you're going after the problem." John O'Mara, after more than two decades of charging homicides in Sacramento, offers a darker perspective.

"[Gang members] aren't particularly impressed that someone got 25 years to life. They're still enamored of thug life. But at least there's one fewer of them in the community."

Tyrone tells a story of what happens when someone commits a murder and eludes arrest. He knew a man who gunned down another over a game of dice gone angry. The next time Tyrone met the alleged murderer, he sensed a change.

"You could see it in his eyes. He was excited, like, 'I got away with it. It was easy.' That shit made him feel good."

The man is dead now, killed by someone else from the neighborhood, or so Tyrone has heard. More blood on the sidewalks. "All of 'em have died," he says.

"I'm kinda like dead, too."

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